Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich has succeeded at Louisville by hiring strong head coaches that other schools rejected.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – California, Minnesota and others interviewed Charlie Strong for their football jobs. They all considered Strong a runner-up.
Five times Jeff Walz interviewed for head-coaching positions at women's basketball programs that were no better than wannabe winners. Five times Walz whiffed. In baseball terms, Dan McDonnell, coach of the University of Louisville baseball team, was also 0-for-5 in pursuit of his first head coaching job.
Now Strong has won a Sugar Bowl and built a program that will start the 2013 season ranked in the Top 10. Walz has coached in two national championship games. McDonnell is taking the Cardinals on their second College World Series journey.
Before he saw net-cutting and celebratory dog piles, U of L athletic director Tom Jurich saw something in Strong, Walz and McDonnell that others missed or ignored.
"I'd much rather go through the learning curve than have somebody who is resting on their laurels,'' Jurich said. "We're going to give them enough support around them to let them be successful.
"I look for people who have the same passion that I do. That's the most important thing to me. If we get people like that, they turn their hard work into having fun. I think people want to work here. I think people want to come to Louisville."
Some athletic programs have their own television networks. Others have mammoth football stadiums. A few control entire states. There aren't many places more passionate about college sports than Louisville. But this isn't Florida, Texas, California or close to a Top 10 area for producing athletes.
Still, Jurich has taken three guys who were surrounded by rejection letters and teamed them with Rick Pitino in his coaching stable. Now Louisville is celebrating a season unlike any other.
By now, everybody knows the list of U of L's signature accomplishments during this academic year – BCS Bowl win over Florida; runner-up finish in women's basketball; championship in men's basketball and College World Series.
What everybody forgets is that Jurich and U of L have delivered this success with coaches that any athletic director could have hired, but many rejected. McDonnell said on Monday that coaches in the college baseball fraternity consider Jurich the best athletic director in the nation. Ditto for Walz.
"Tom wants to win, but all athletic directors want to win," Walz said. "He has a tremendous ability to make every coach and every athlete in all the programs believe their sport is important.
"He takes the time to learn the names of the players, address them by their first names and learn about their lives. He'll ask them questions. He's not just a figurehead administrator. He cares about people – and kids appreciate that."
There were reasons Strong, Walz and McDonnell were career assistants before Jurich hired them. Strong worried that administrators were scared by his interracial marriage. The word in the athletic director grapevine was Strong also struggled to express himself in interviews.
Strong built some of the best defenses in college football at Florida. Nobody was in a rush to hire him.
Walz stutters. He is certain his speech problem was an issue that scared people. How would Walz represent a school in the media or at public speaking opportunities? He was a highly regarded assistant at Maryland, but assistant coaches don't have public relations demands that head coaches do.
"I'd walk out of interviews and know I wasn't going to get the job because I could tell by how the athletic director reacted (to his stuttering)," Walz said.
McDonnell's problem was his passion. McDonnell said that after his fourth or fifth rejection, his older brother, also a coach, told him that he might be scaring athletic directors by sharing all of his plans for building a great program.
Play the game. Tell the AD what the AD wants to hear. Don't risk making a potential boss worry they were about to hire a guy who would always want more, more, more. McDonnell was a prime assistant coach at Mississippi but not every school was prepared to make a commitment to baseball like Ole Miss.
McDonnell said he didn't want to compromise. He wanted to be himself, a guy consumed by the challenge of competing at the highest level.
McDonnell didn't change. He didn't have to.
He met Tom Jurich.
McDonnell said Jurich picked him up at the airport for his job interview. McDonnell had been on the road to attend a graduation ceremony and packed only two polo shirts – one white, the other blue. He wore the white one and made an immediate connection.
Walz can relate to that moment. He arrived for his interview dressed for success. The first thing Jurich told him was to remove the jacket and tie. They talked for 90 minutes at a restaurant in a downtown hotel.
Jurich did more than tell Walz not to worry about his stutter. He told Walz they'd find the best speech therapist in the area to help him speak confidently with fewer issues. And he has.
Walz and McDonnell knew they wanted to come to Louisville. And stay at Louisville. And win at Louisville, just like Charlie Strong and the other coaches that Tom Jurich has assembled.